How the Church Suffers for the Gospel
The Apostle Paul and his two missionary companions, Silas and Timothy, came to Thessalonica and planted a church during Paul’s second missionary journey, but within weeks their success in winning converts stirred up tremendous opposition. In fact, a riot was generated, and they had to flee the city during the night. Paul’s detractors apparently used that fact against him, claiming he had used and abused his new converts and then abandoned them to handle persecution alone.
Two weeks ago we considered Paul’s defense against the claim that he used and abused the church while there. On the contrary, the exact opposite was true. He came to unselfishly proclaim the gospel in spite of persecution. Furthermore, while there he strictly avoided the tricks so common among religious charlatans and opportunists. He didn’t employ error or impurity or deception; he wasn’t a people-pleaser; he didn’t use flattery or practice greed; and he didn’t seek the praise of people. In fact, he treated his flock as a godly mother loves her own children, and he treated them as a godly father encourages and directs his children. Most importantly he shared not only the gospel with them but he shared himself also.
Now in our passage today, 2:17-3:13 Paul speaks to the second major charge against him–that he had abandoned these new converts and neglected them. This he views as another scandalous charge because it was so contrary to the facts. The truth was that …
1. He left them with great reluctance. (2:17a)
2. He made repeated efforts to return to them. (2:17b-20)
3. When he could stand the separation no longer, he sent a gifted and
qualified representative (Timothy) in his place to inquire about
their faith. (3:1-5)
4. He was overjoyed at the good news Timothy brought back. (3:6-10)
5. He was praying for them the whole time. (3:11-13)
Now I’m going to guess that for at least some of you this rehearsal of Paul’s travel plans doesn’t quite light your fire. In fact, I wouldn’t be shocked if someone’s initial response to reading this passage isn’t a big yawn and a “So what?” Why in the world does God take up so much precious space in His holy Word to discuss why Paul didn’t make a trip back to Thessalonica?
Well, for one thing Paul’s deep concern for the church at Thessalonica serves as a wonderful example to all of us of how we should treat other believers to whom God has called us to minister. When we are away from our spiritual family do we try to maintain contact, do we work through intermediaries, do we pray constantly for those from whom we are separated? It might also help us to be hesitant in criticizing our own pastors when we feel they have not always been there for us. Maybe the pastor didn’t make it to the hospital when we were having surgery, or perhaps he failed to stop by when a loved one died. Those situations may cause real disappointment, but is it possible, as in the case of Paul, that he’s ministering to others? Or perhaps Satan has hindered him from being there. Or maybe God wants us to be satisfied with the representative who comes in his place.
But there is something else in this passage, woven in such a way that we might miss it if we aren’t careful. That is a sub-theme of suffering, thus our title, “How the Church Suffers for the Gospel.” Suffering has already been mentioned several times in 1 Thessalonians. In 1:6 Paul praised them because they “received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit.” In chapter 2:2 he mentioned the suffering his pastoral team endured. And last week Josh shared how the Thessalonians had received the Gospel message, but in the process experienced opposition from unbelievers. In fact, Josh presented a profound contrast that applies almost universally:
Reception of the gospel results in opposition from people in this life but in ultimate deliverance from the wrath of God.
Rejection of the gospel may result in acceptance from people in this life but in ultimate defeat at God’s judgment.
But it is in our passage today that we find a particular focus on the suffering of the Thessalonian church. While sticking with the outline shown earlier, which lays out Paul’s defense of his travel plans, we are going to give special attention to this issue of suffering, which appears as a separate and subordinate outline in bold italics.
Let’s read our Scripture text for today, 1 Thes 2:17-3:13:
But since we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart, we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you—I, Paul, again and again—but Satan hindered us. For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.
Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain.
But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you—for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith?
Now may our God and Father himself, and our Lord Jesus, direct our way to you, and may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, as we do for you, so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.
Our Sermon in a Sentence: Paul defends his hasty departure from Thessalonica and his failure to return, while providing a brief but important theology of suffering.
The first argument Paul offers as to why he should not be accused of abandonment is that …
1. He left them with great reluctance. (2:17a) He addresses his departure from Thessalonica in verse 17: “…. we were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart.” I see three points being made here:
1. He didn’t leave willingly at all–he was torn away.
2. It wasn’t a permanent separation, just a temporary one.
3. It wasn’t a spiritual separation, only a physical one.
The last thing he intended to do was to abandon the believers there.
2. He made repeated efforts to return to them. (2:17b-20) “ … we endeavored the more eagerly and with great desire to see you face to face, because we wanted to come to you–I, Paul, again and again.” The language here expresses his intense longing to see them, and the grammar communicates that all three of them–Paul, Silas, and Timothy–felt the same way, but especially Paul. The fact that he didn’t return wasn’t for lack of effort, planning, finances, or anything else. Paul blames it squarely on Satan.
It is at this point that Paul introduces his philosophy of suffering by addressing the source of much of it. I want to express the point this way:
The Church suffers when she encounters spiritual warfare. Satan hindered us, Paul claims. The term for “hinder” in Greek is used elsewhere of breaking up a road, rendering it impassable, and of an athlete cutting in on someone during a race. The claim is that Satan did not allow him return to Thessalonica.
How exactly did Satan hinder him? We can’t be sure. Paul may be referring to the opposition that drove him out of Thessalonica and was still persecuting the believers there. Or he might be thinking of his “thorn in the flesh,” which was apparently some kind of debilitating physical problem that prevented him from traveling and which he later called “a messenger from Satan” (2 Cor. 12:7). Or he might be referring to some problem in the church where he is now serving (Athens or Corinth) that prevented him from leaving there.
A more important question is how Paul knows that this particular hindrance is from Satan. I assume he either had unusual spiritual discernment or God simply revealed to him that the roadblock this time was Satanic. What is absolutely clear is that his failure to return was not due to any indifference on his part.
I believe there are two extremes we need to avoid when it comes to Satanic activity. One is to use Satan to explain every failure in our lives. Unfortunately, there are some who are tempted to do that. “I wanted to witness to so-and-so, but Satan stopped me.” Possibly, but it is more likely we were afraid or lazy. Spiritual warfare is frequently appealed to in such a way that we escape responsibility for our own failures. That is not healthy.
But a second common extreme is to ignore Satan’s activity or even scoff at the notion that there is a devil. Believe me, he is alive and well on planet Earth, and I believe he is particularly focused on stopping the spread of the gospel. If Paul were able to return to Thessalonica, he would immediately resume his preaching of the gospel and his discipling of these new believers, and that is the last thing the Evil One wants. So he hinders Paul. We aren’t told how, just that it happened.
But I also think it is important for us to recognize that Satan has no ultimate power to do anything. All of his power is delegated. That is, he does what he does only because God allows it. That’s one of the great themes of the story of Job. Satan has to come and ask permission to attack God’s servant. And God puts specific parameters around that permission.
Let me suggest to you that many trials we face will have multiple causes: the ultimate cause is God Himself who allows it for His purposes; the intermediate cause is often Satan, who works behind the scenes to undermine God’s work in our lives; the immediate cause may be some human enemy or illness or malady.
Now before moving on to Paul’s third argument as to why he hadn’t abandoned them, I want you to look at verses 19-20: “For what is our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming? Is it not you? For you are our glory and joy.” Here Paul asks several rhetorical questions which reflect his great love for them. When Paul stands before Jesus at the Judgment Seat, his glory and joy will not be in how many sermons he has preached, or how many degrees he has earned, or how many denominational positions he has held, or how many members are in his church plants, or how big their budgets are. His glory and joy will be in the changed lives of the people he has led to Christ and discipled.[i] As parents have great joy when their children accomplish goals for which the parents have hoped and prayed, so Paul will have similar joy when his spiritual children finally have their faith demonstrated and vindicated by victoriously weathering the storm of judgment at Christ’s final coming.[ii]
3. When he could stand the separation no longer, he sent a gifted and qualified representative (Timothy) in his place to find out about their faith. (3:1-5) I want you to notice that Paul twice uses a similar phrase: “when we could bear it no longer” (verse 1), and “when I could bear it no longer” (verse 5). I don’t see any particular significance to the change from plural to singular, for Paul goes back and forth in this epistle from singular to plural, but I do see significance in his claim that he is so devoted to the believers in the church that he felt he had to do something drastic about the forced separation between them. While he is unable to personally make a trip back to Thessalonica at this time, he is willing to send Timothy.
This is no small sacrifice on Paul’s part. Timothy is identified as “our brother” and “God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ.” Paul is in Athens now, and when Timothy leaves, he will be left alone. He needs Timothy, certainly for ministry help and likely also because of Paul’s poor health, but he is willing to let Timothy return to Thessalonica because they need him even more.
Paul states three reasons for sending Timothy on this mission to Thessalonica. The first is “to establish and exhort you in your faith.” He is to build them up and encourage them in Paul’s absence. Second, Timothy will hopefully keep them from becoming unsettled by the trials facing them. (I’ll come back to that in just a moment). Third, he also wants Timothy to bring word back to him about their faith (verse 5). He is simply obsessed with knowing how they are doing.
It is here in verses 3 and 4 that Paul again speaks of their trials and suffering.
The Church suffers when she faces trials. Furthermore, no believer should be surprised or unsettled when trials arrive. Why not?
1. We are destined for trials. One of the best ways to protect people from being blown away by suffering is to remind them that suffering is normal. In fact, it is actually a necessary part of the Christian life. I have spoken often of health/wealth theology, because I personally believe it is one of the most insidious and deceptive heresies the church has ever faced. When preachers teach or even hint that the faithful Christian can expect to be healthy and to enjoy wealth and material blessings so long as he exercises sufficient faith, they are not only distorting the Scriptures and misleading these poor souls, they are also setting them up for spiritual disaster when trials do come, and they will.
Not only that, but such teaching renders an unconscionable disservice to the reputations of every saint who has suffered ill health or poverty or premature death, including Paul himself. Paul was a man of incomparable faith and faithfulness, yet he suffered his whole life–physically and materially–and died at the hands of his enemies.
But there is a second reason why the believer should not be surprised or unsettled when faced with suffering:
2. We have been warned in advance. Listen again to verse 4: “For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know.” Apparently the inevitability of suffering was a regular topic in Paul’s discipling of converts. Jesus also taught it. Peter taught it. You need proof? Let’s examine some of the words of Jesus:
Matt 5:11-12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
John 15:20: “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you.”
John 16:33: “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
What about Paul?
Acts 14:22: “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”
Romans 8:16-17: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs–heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.”
Philippians 1:29: “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”
2 Tim. 3:12: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.”
What about Peter?
1 Peter 2:19-21: “For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps.”
1 Peter 4:12-19: “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you…. If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name …. Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
The question is not whether or not we will face trials (we will!) but whether or not we will be faithful in confronting them and growing through them. I just want to state the obvious here: Anyone who can read these passages and still preach a health/wealth gospel is a spiritual schizophrenic. But sadly there are a lot of them in the church and on the religious airwaves.
By the way, do you see another reference to spiritual warfare there at the end of verse 5? This time Satan is called the tempter. Regarding the faith of the Thessalonians in his absence, Paul stated, “I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” Again it is not entirely clear what he is referring to; i.e., we don’t know the nature of the temptation that Paul feared. It could have been doctrinal or moral. Whatever it was, if the tempter had succeeded, the end result would be that the efforts of Pastor Paul and his missionary team would have been in vain, so Paul decides to send Timothy to prevent that from happening. Satan sometimes puts up roadblocks. Sometimes he undermines through temptation.
Paul’s fourth argument as to why the accusation of abandonment is unfounded is that …
4. He was overjoyed at the good news Timothy brought back. (3:6-10) In the second paragraph of chapter 3 Paul recounts the good news Timothy brought back to him after his visit to Thessalonica. The term “good news” used here is the same as the word for “gospel” or “evangelize.” This is the only time in the NT that the word is used for anything but the gospel itself.
There are three aspects to the good news that Timothy reports: first, the faith and love of the Thessalonian believers are intact; second, they remember Paul and his companions kindly; and third, the longing to see one another is mutual. This information comforts Paul and causes him great joy and thanksgiving. In fact, he states that this news has given him a new lease on life.
But this good news does not cause Paul to relax. On the contrary, he prays most earnestly night and day that he may yet see them face to face. Someone has asked, how can Paul pray night and day when he just told us back in 2:9 that he worked night and day? Which is it? Well, both. Prayer and work can overlap; in fact, they should overlap.
Why is he so set on seeing them again? So that he may “supply what is lacking in your faith.” The term for “supply” here in Greek is used in various places of a fisherman repairing his nets, a surgeon setting bones, and a politician reconciling factions.[iii] Paul had only been in Thessalonica a short time, and the believers had not yet arrived at the place of spiritual maturity. He desires to fill any gaps in their theology or in their ethical understanding.
Did you notice that suffering is mentioned again in this paragraph, but this time it is not the suffering of the Thessalonians but rather the suffering of Paul and his companions. Paul says in verse 7: “ . . . in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith.”
Here’s the point:
Suffering is vindicated and alleviated when it produces a firm faith. Paul views the suffering he has had to endure as eminently worth it when he sees the developing faith of his young converts in Thessalonica. That’s not hard to understand. Every one of us who has made sacrifices of any kind in ministry feels that the sacrifice is vindicated when we see positive results in the lives of those for whom we made the sacrifices.
Now the last argument Paul presents against the claim that he had abandoned the believers in Thessalonica is that …
5. He was praying for them the whole time. (3:11-13) He prays first that God will allow him to come and visit. In the meantime, he prays that their love may abound and increase for one another, i.e., for members of their church family, but also for everyone else. This is similar to Paul’s exhortation in Gal. 6:16: “As we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” God never lets us get by with just being good at home, or just at church. We need to show His love to the world.
The ultimate goal of Paul’s prayer, however, is that they may have their hearts established as “blameless in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” We’re going to hear a lot more in coming weeks about the return of Christ and the implications for how we should live. I remember as a teen hearing frequent warnings about not getting caught doing X, Y, or Z when Jesus comes. It instilled a certain fear in me that probably had both good and bad results. Here Paul employs the positive side of that same warning, as he urges us to be found blameless in holiness when He returns.
Conclusion: I very rarely read a forward from the Internet in a sermon, but last week I received one that has an interesting application to today’s message. It is, of course, a take-off on the name of Osama bin Laden.
News reports are that five terrorist cell groups have been operating in many of our churches. They have been identified as: Bin Sleepin, Bin Arguin, Bin Fightin, Bin Complainin, and Bin Missin. Their leader, Satan Bin Workin, trained these groups to destroy the fellowship of the Body of Christ. The plan is to come into the church disguised as Christians and to work within the church to discourage, disrupt, and destroy. However, there have been reports of a sixth group. A tiny cell known by the name Bin Prayin is actually the only effective counter terrorism force in the church. Unlike other groups, the Bin Prayin team does not blend in with whoever and whatever comes along. Bin Prayin does whatever is needed to uplift and encourage the Body of Christ. We have noticed that the Bin Prayin group has different characteristics than the others. They have Bin Watchin, Bin Waitin, Bin Fastin, and Bin Longin for their Master, Jesus Christ to return.
[i]. But how do we reconcile what he says here with what he said at the end of Galatians? “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” I don’t believe there is any inherent contradiction here. The Thessalonian converts are ultimately trophies of Christ crucified.
[ii]. G. K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, 93.
[iii]. John R. W. Stott, The Message of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 66.